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Here’s the Real Divide Tearing America Apart

Hint: It’s not Republican vs. Democrat.

America's political divide
Source: iStock/natasaadzic

When people talk about our rapidly unraveling national unity (as tends to happen a lot these days), it almost always comes down to politics. Republican vs. Democrat. Conservative vs. liberal. Right vs. left.

However, what is really tearing us apart is far more pernicious: The most significant divide affecting us today is that between people who are community-centered and those who are self-centered.

I can already picture our more left-leaning readers thinking to themselves, “Of course, self-centeredness is the problem. That’s what Republicans (or conservatives or right-wingers or whatever) are all about.”

And it would seem our hypothetical liberals have a point. Aren’t conservatives proud of their selfishness? Don’t they talk relentlessly about the virtues of individualism and the unregulated free market? Isn’t self-centeredness at the center of their philosophy?

Sure, there are many Republicans whose only motivation is paying less tax and amassing more cash so they can buy more toys. There are a lot of conservatives whose drive to eliminate government regulation comes from nothing more than a toddlerish desire to do anything they want whenever they want regardless of who it poisons, shoots, chokes, burns, or floods.

At the same time, there are Republicans who believe in good faith that conservative solutions spur innovation and effectively address widespread economic and cultural problems.

But what about those on the other end of the political spectrum? Aren’t liberals and progressives, by definition, people who want to make society better for everyone? Wouldn’t we all be better off if we followed left-wing prescriptions to the letter, regardless of who they come from or the form they take?

The Many Flavors of Self-centeredness

In a lot of cases, progressives who advocate for a wider social safety net, anti-discrimination laws, and universal healthcare do so because of their real belief that when we make the society as a whole healthier and more secure, each and every one of us benefits. Whether or not you agree with their specific prescriptions, it’s hard to deny that these are fundamentally community-minded people.

But what about, for example, far-left adherents of the anti-vaccination movement? Despite almost complete scientific consensus backing the effectiveness and necessity of vaccines, anti-vaxxers base their vehement position on how vaccines make them personally feel unsafe.

Or what about the rising fervor for “ethical” non-monogamy, even within the bounds of marriage (often initiated by one party years after the couple initially agreed to exclusively commit to one another for the duration of their lives)? Touchtone texts for this position like Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha have been widely debunked by mainstream academics. Conversely, reams of solid peer-reviewed research have been published on the role of sex in cementing human pair bonding.

Members of this rapidly growing subset of the “sex-positive” left often shouts down such arguments. Still, despite attempts at “clear boundaries” and “open communication,” marriages and families continue to splinter in the face of this mass experiment.

It comes down to this: Self-centered right-wingers are overwhelmingly motivated by material acquisition. Self-centered left-wingers are overwhelmingly motivated by pleasure and convenience. None of this is inherently negative. But when these values are given paramount importance, regardless of who gets hurt in their pursuit, might it be that we have a problem?

As we continue to debate whether the Republicans or Democrats will win in November, it is worth considering whether we are focused on the wrong issue. Maybe instead of concentrating on the left vs. right divide, we should pay more attention to considering our own well-being as interconnected with the communities within which we live, move, and work.

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Fletcher GJO, Simpson JA, Campbell L and Overall NC, “Pair-Bonding, Romantic Love, and Evolution: The Curious Case of Homo sapiens, “ Perspectives on Psychological Science 2015, Vol. 10(1) 20-36